Why Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Visits To Cleveland Matter Today

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In late March of 1965, Cory Methodist Church was packed with Clevelanders waiting to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Thousands more streamed into the Glenville neighborhood streets.  Dr. King turned to Rev. E.T. Caviness and asked him to open up his Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church next door to handle the overflow crowd. 

“And he said, ‘I love Cleveland, Ohio.’” Caviness said.  “And I asked him, 'why did he love Cleveland so much?'  And he said, ‘Well, Cleveland has so many ex-Alabamians’.”

The Montgomery-based civil rights leader went on to make many visits to Northeast Ohio, making speeches, raising money and helping elect Carl Stokes as the first African American mayor of a major American city. 

Rev. E.T. Caviness at a 1967 rally for Carl Stokes at Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church (Northeast Ohio Broadcast Archive at John Carroll University)

Caviness noted that the civil rights struggles of the North were subtler than those in the South.

“We referred to Montgomery, Alabama, as ‘Down South,'” he said.  “And we referred to Cleveland as ‘Up South,' because so many of the denials of equality and justice were perpetrated here.”

This year marks this 50th anniversary of Dr. King's death.  How much have things changed?

“It’s a different topography now,” Caviness said.  “People are struggling to live, jobs are scarce.  In our own immediate community here, we had 700 foreclosures during the financial collapse.  We had 1,200 boarded-up houses.”

Caviness said Glenville was a thriving community when he and his family first moved there in 1961. 

So what’s the message of his sermon in times like these?

Rev. E.T. Caviness: "You never quit.  You can't stop" (Dennis James Knowles / ideastream)

“The basic sermon I embrace is: You never quit,” he said.  “You can’t stop.  You’ve got to keep moving, and maintain personal accountability.  Martin was about this.  It’s all about helping people.  It’s not about helping yourself.”

Caviness said it’s also important to maintain hope in a time when the truth seems to be constantly in question.

“In fact, Martin used to say - it comes from [Thomas] Carlyle - that a lie will not last forever,” Caviness said.  “Justice leans toward what we’re trying to do today.”

(Dennis James Knowles / ideastream)

Caviness is senior pastor at Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church.  A number of his congregants will be in the chorus of the Cleveland Orchestra’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration concert, which you can hear Sunday night at 7:00 here and on WCLV 104.9 and WCPN 90.3.

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